Downtown Line 2: Promising start

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Ridership on the Downtown Line (DTL) has been good and continues to grow steadily. It has risen by up to 30% since 4 Jan, the first school/work day of the year. DTL2 Promising start_PictureThis has also brought benefits to the rest of the network. Some 5% of commuters on the East-West Line, for instance, have shifted to the DTL. This has reduced crowding slightly at stations like Jurong East. Buses that ply the DTL2 corridor are also less crowded.

I have high hopes that DTL2 will encourage more motorists to give their cars a break. Schools in the area are already seeing fewer cars dropping off their students, making Dunearn Road and Bukit Timah Road noticeably less crowded in the mornings. Many shops and eateries along the line, in particular at Beauty World, after patiently putting up with the inconvenience during the construction of DTL2, are now enjoying booming business.

All in all, DTL2 has started very positively. I think it will be a game changer in our journey towards a car-lite lifestyle.

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Battling unknowns

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Trains are a significant cause of our past disruptions. We will spend over $1 billion to expand and upgrade our train fleet. These new trains will help address past train-related faults. 99 new trains will be delivered progressively from now till 2019. This is a considerable but necessary investment to improve our train reliability.

With these new trains, more trains can undergo maintenance during operating hours without affecting service standards. We can also have a number of “hot” stand-by, to be deployed quickly when a train breaks down.

But even with better trains, they still need to be properly maintained, so our focus on train maintenance will remain a perennial priority.

Another major cause of past disruptions was track-side systems, such as the signalling system and third rail. To address this, we are restoring and upgrading the systems. By 2018, we will have new sleepers, third rail, and signalling systems for our oldest North-South and East-West Lines. We would have rejuvenated these older lines, which will then be as good as new.

Like trains, we also have to ensure stringent maintenance standards are adhered to. LTA is deploying more personnel to conduct more regular and tighter audits, as well as to better understand the operational realities.

Three months into the job, I am more optimistic that we know what we need to do. But there are still some wild cards. Unlike incidents that we can attribute to maintenance and ageing, there are some incidents caused by unforeseen factors. Mr Tan Gee Paw called them “rats”. They can cause system-wide disruptions. Unfortunately, they are also the most difficult to prevent.

Here’s an example of such a “ratty” problem: We have in recent years added significant capacity to existing lines by adding more trains, and also running them at higher frequencies. While LTA has ensured that these additional trips are kept within the power capacity that the system was designed for, greater power loading means thinner buffers for faults. Thinner buffers can become a breeding ground for “rats”.

To address the increased loading, LTA had been rapidly upgrading the power system (e.g. expanding the capacity of 10 electrical substations to better support the NSEWL). We would like to do the upgrade faster and complete it earlier, but LTA has the same constraint in the shortage of engineering hours (when train services cease) for these major works and maintenance. But LTA will do its best to speed up the work.

As you can see, “rat-catching” goes beyond routine maintenance. It has much to do with the design of the rail line and system, and a proper understanding of local ground conditions and creating enough buffers to cushion the unknowns. To battle the unknowns, we also have to build up an army of experts with years of experience. This takes time, but we are determined to get there.

One practical way to start off is to tap on the collective wisdom of the industry. LTA is setting up an Independent Advisory Panel for Power Supply, comprising experts from industry, academia and foreign operators, to:

  • Examine all recent power-related incidents,
  • Assess the resilience of the current power system,
  • Identify any potential system gaps and recommend mitigating measures, and
  • Determine the timing for the next power system upgrade.

“Rats” do not exist only in the power system. With more trains plying existing lines, wear and tear of the rail tracks have increased. LTA and SMRT have been carrying out a complete system check on critical components showing recent defects or failure, and are changing out defective and degraded parts ahead of schedule where required.

In addition, LTA will also set up a standing Expert Audit Panel (EAP), with members drawn from the German, Hong Kong and Japanese rail operators. They will visit us regularly, examine the reliability of our rail system, and help us achieve excellence in rail operations and maintenance. I have asked Mr Tan Gee Paw to chair this Expert Audit Panel.

Soon we will welcome the New Year. We are certain that it will be another hectic and busy year for us in the MOT.

We have to ensure Singapore remains a competitive global hub for the aviation and maritime industries. We will press on with the transformation of our public transport system, so that more Singaporeans can move around with ease.

In particular, our eyes remain focused on upping rail performance, minimising train breakdowns, and avoiding large scale train disruptions, while ensuring the timely implementation of several new rail lines.

It will be a busy year for sure. There may still be some disappointments and upsets. I hope Singaporeans will bear with us, and continue to give us your moral support. It means a lot to us working in the trenches and in the wee hours of the day.

Happy New Year, fellow commuters!

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Six days to enjoy free Downtown Line (DTL) ride

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DTL2 will start tomorrow, 27 December. We have been working hard and are doing all we can to ensure a smooth service, free from major incidents.

Our immediate priority is for a good start. My worry is that there may be severe overcrowding. It is a Sunday, during a holiday season, there is novelty value, and travelling is free. If too many rush in to be among the first wave of commuters, there will be overcrowding and long waiting time.

We will deploy extra staff to man the stations and many goodwill ambassadors to guide the commuters. We will do our best to ensure a pleasant service for all.

Commuters can help too. In particular, do note that free service will run for six days to 1 January. So please spread out, and there is no need to rush. DTL is here to stay, and there will be plenty of opportunities to experience its wonders, including the artwork in each station.

We will inform commuters of the level of crowdedness at the DTL stations. So do check via MyTransport.SG app and better time your trip accordingly. This way, all can enjoy the new DTL2 and get familiarised with the layout of its 12 new stations. I will be there tomorrow to observe; I hope it will be a good experience for all.

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Cutting teeth

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As a young, inexperienced father, my firstborn’s teething when her first pair of teeth cut through the gums was quite an experience as she became irritable and restless. My wife and I felt helpless, not quite knowing what to do to relieve our girl’s discomfort.

We subsequently became better at managing her younger sisters’ teething. All these happened decades ago 🙂

Well, I will soon experience my first rail line’s “teething” :(.

Cutting teeth_PictureCome 27 December, Downtown Line 2 (DTL2) with its 12 new stations will begin operation. LTA and SBST engineers have spent many months preparing and testing the entire system, from the operations control centre to the trains and tunnels. This includes a very large number of tests on the integration between DTL1 and DTL2. By the time of the opening, they would have chalked up thousands of tests.

Will there still be teething issues despite all the tests?

The engineers told me to expect a “bedding-in” period of several months before the system stabilises. This is common for all new lines. While they can perform all forms of testing in a simulated environment, they cannot fully replicate how the system will actually perform in a live environment involving thousands of commuters. (Remember Murphy’s Law again!)

What was DTL1’s teething experience when it opened in December 2013?

There were two disruptions in January and March 2014. One involved a train’s emergency brake and the other, a power trip. This time round, when we need to integrate a new stretch of the line with another that is already in operation, we can expect more challenges.

But we are working hard to minimise any disruptions in this teething process. We must also anticipate the worst, and have drawer plans for contingencies in the event that disruptions do occur. We want to be proud parents, not stressed-out ones.

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A worthy investment

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The first step to improving rail reliability is to know what causes disruptions. There are several reasons: equipment and component failure, operation and maintenance lapses by operators and contractors, passenger action, and design issues. A look back on major disruptions provides some clues. When external factors such as passenger action are excluded, almost half of the major disruptions on our oldest North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL) were due to train issues, with other factors such as track or power faults causing the rest.

As with all machines, as trains age, we must work harder to keep them in good condition. Like those in London and New York, trains can last us twenty years or longer, if they are maintained properly and refurbished at the right time. Eventually, we must decide when to replace them with new trains. Fortunately, with time, better train models with enhanced reliability features have become available in the market. These trains are also easier to operate and maintain. Adding them to our fleet can therefore make a difference to the overall performance of the rail network and in turn, better our service delivery.

A worthy investment_picFrom this year to 2019, we will be adding 99 new trains: 57 for NSEWL, 18 for the North East Line and 24 for the Circle Line.  These new trains will have improved propulsion systems, and more reliable and durable AC synchronous motors which require less maintenance. The new NSEWL trains will also have electric train doors that need lower maintenance and will eliminate air leakage problems associated with the older pneumatic doors. The operations data for each train door will be logged and stored for the maintenance crew to pre-empt door faults before they occur.

As part of the train purchases, we post our rail engineers and technical staff to the overseas factories where the trains are being built, to monitor the entire assembly process and participate in train testing. This also helps our officers gain valuable experience and enhance their technical understanding of the trains.

These 99 trains will cost us over a billion dollars upfront, but they will be a worthy investment. They will be more cost effective in the longer run. Most of all, they will help us achieve higher rail reliability.

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Deepening Capabilities

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As rail technology continues to evolve and improve, our rail engineers have to keep up.  Every new line and every new train must be better than their predecessors. This way, we keep our train systems and fleet up-to-date, more reliable, easier to maintain, safer and more cost-effective to operate.

This means that our rail engineers must continue to learn and re-learn. It requires a close relationship and partnership among LTA, SBST, SMRT and our Institutes of Higher Learning, from our ITEs through to the polytechnics and universities. Teachers and students will benefit from actual industry experience, and the industry will benefit from well-taught graduates. It is a virtuous cycle that we must continually strengthen.

LTA and our operators have been driving efforts on this front, including in course design, internship opportunities, and sponsorships:

  • Two years back, they worked with the Singapore Institute of Technology to develop an undergraduate programme in Sustainable Infrastructure Engineering focusing on rail engineering. The first cohort of about 50 students is now in Year 2 and they will soon be going for an intensive work attachment of up to a Depeening capabilities_pic1year at SBST, SMRT or LTA.
  • Earlier this year, Singapore Poly launched a new part-time diploma programme in Engineering (Rapid Transit Technology). Republic Poly also launched an Engineering Systems and Management diploma with an Urban Transport specialisation option.
  • ITE has just launched the Higher NITEC in Rapid Transit Engineering this April. These students, along with other NITEC/higher NITEC engineering graduates, can further deepen their skills through the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn programme, which will be launched by Singapore Poly and WDA next year.

Separately, SMRT engineers have been engaging researchers from A*STAR, NUS, NTU and SUTD on R&D in asset condition monitoring and transportation system planning. Over the past two years, they have also tested their ideas with a technical advisory panel comprising local and international rail experts.

In brief, the industry needs engineers trained in broader engineering disciplines, whom we can then further train to apply their knowledge to specialised domains. We will work with NUS/NTU so that their final year engineering modules include rail engineering. This will allow us to tap on a broader pool of engineering talent across all faculties.

We have made a good start. I intend to expand these programmes (both pre-employment and continuing education) rapidly. We need a step-jump in training capacity for the rail sector if we are to have enough skilled engineers and technicians.

Depeening capabilities_pic2We should also find a way to eventually amalgamate these training programmes and offer even more dedicated training for the sector. We floated the idea of a “National Rail Academy” with the Public Transport Tripartite Committee, and the Committee was very supportive.

The Academy will signal the Government’s concerted and determined approach to build up and deepen rail capabilities. This will help brand the industry, assure those who enter the academy of a job after initial training, achieve economies of scale in trainers/training facilities, and allow us to implement apprentice schemes and hence start recruitment early, well before new lines come along.

*Photos courtesy of SBST and SMRT

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Restoring reliability of the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL)

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While discussions on the detailed plans are still on-going, the principal elements of the strategy to restore the NSEWL’s reliability are becoming clearer to us.

First, replace, overhaul and upgrade. The NSEWL are nearing their 30th year. Just like car parts need to be periodically replaced or extensively overhauled, the NSEWL’s station facilities, trains, tracks, signalling and power systems are similarly due for such an exercise. These replacement and refurbishment exercises are also an opportunity to upgrade the equipment. For example, not only must old electric motors be replaced, the power supply system may need to be upgraded to meet new demand. All these require very costly capital expenditures, but they are necessary to improve safety and reliability.

This process has begun. All the sleepers for the entire North-South Line have been replaced; the replacement on the East-West Line began in May. We have also begun replacing the third rail, which provides electric power to trains. We are also upgrading the signalling system to allow us to run trains at shorter intervals, and thus increase capacity by up to 20%.

When all these works are completed by 2018, we will essentially have an ‘almost new’ NSEWL.

Second, ramp up maintenance. The current level of maintenance is inadequate. SMRT and SBST have agreed, and are committed to significantly ramp up their maintenance resources, including manpower.

Building up the numbers is one thing. Building a strong engineering core with deep skills is another and will take time. The availability of skilled manpower is a challenge which we must overcome. To this end, we must also work hard to retain existing professionals and up-skill them at every opportunity.

Restoring reliability of NSEWL_PictureThird, better support maintenance. Currently, the maintenance crew has a limited window of engineering hours to carry out routine maintenance and major overhauls. They have asked for more time, during off-peak periods, to be set aside for maintenance. Examples include early Sunday mornings and especially during school holidays. If revenue service can be reduced by even half an hour during such off-peak periods, it will mean a lot to the maintenance crew, especially for the inspection and repair of tunnels and tracks.  We hope to get commuters’ support for such a measure.

Fourth, clear corporate and top management focus on engineering excellence. Rail technology requires advanced multi-disciplinary engineering, discipline and operational excellence to achieve a high level of reliability. Corporate focus on engineering excellence is essential and the management must reiterate it at every opportunity. SMRT’s top leadership have expressed strong commitment to me, to raise rail reliability. Frequent rail disruptions tarnish their reputation and demoralise their staff too. Shareholders  too, must, first and foremost, realise that they are buying into a specialised engineering company.

Fifth, ramp up LTA supervision. We are strengthening our regulatory regime, so that we can catch problems upstream, before they result in disruptions and delays to commuters. Till recently, we have taken a more outcome-based approach. But really, by the time a fault happens, it is too late. This is where doing things right is as important as doing the right thing. LTA is formulating a stringent set of maintenance performance standards, with more prescriptive, process-based requirements for the operators. This will complement the current outcome-based approach. A stronger maintenance culture cannot be cultivated overnight, so LTA will also help drive this by embedding dedicated teams in the NSEWL for a start to provide engineering expertise.

Sixth, forge an integrated team. As I have stressed before, rail reliability concerns everyone. Problems can emerge from design, operations or maintenance. (It may also be caused by an unintended act of a commuter.) When a problem emerges, it is more important to focus first on understanding the cause and addressing it, rather than to attribute fault (which can come later especially if it is criminal or negligence). I believe that the outcome everyone wants is for commuters to enjoy reliable service. Finger-pointing in the first instance will not get us anywhere near this outcome; it only causes distrust between parties or worse, leads to under-reporting or even cover-up. We need an enlightened approach of transparency and open collaboration amongst all parties, and I am insisting on such a culture.

Seventh, integrate the industry structure. For a complex engineering system like our rail network, we need a tightly integrated approach to achieve optimal results. All parties involved in the different stages – design, build, operate, maintain – must work closely together. For example, the designer must appreciate the operational complications and learn from them, so that his future designs can address these issues. As an engineer, I subscribe to the mantra that “a good design is easy to build, maintain and operate”. The rail industry structure must promote and facilitate such an integrated approach. There is room to improve the integration in the current MRT industry structure, with the regulator, designer and builder, working even more closely with the operator and maintainer. We will have to consider whether to rework the structure or perhaps implement new processes to realise the ideal outcome. This is a strategic issue which we are currently thinking through.

These seven elements will collectively transform the state of rail reliability. The desired outcome is for good engineers to be able to do good work, for the larger public good, undistracted from secondary non-engineering objectives. It is a multi-year effort, but if we stay the course, we can experience distinct improvements in rail reliability in the coming couple of years.

The above approach applies to the NSEWL, as well as the other lines run by the SMRT and SBST. Indeed, the approach will also guide us in starting the new line, the Thomson-East Coast Line, on the correct footing from day one, unencumbered by legacy issues.

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